“Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Thus begins the Westminster Shorter Catechism, a core 16th Century document of the Reformed tradition. In one short sentence, it states the meaning of life for all time. Today it would probably be called the mission statement of the movement.
The Shorter Catechism was intended for popular education, to be widely known and inwardly well digested. Unfortunately, in modern times, even among those who are in, or have evolved from, the Reformed heritage, it is well known only in a much smaller circle. The answer to the first question, as quoted above, now shares with mission statements in general a benign neglect of attention.
Does the average church in fact believe the proposition? You can go for a long time in a congregation without hearing that the chief purpose of being together is to glorify God. Likewise, in reviewing multiple ads and websites for churches, I found not one that said its chief purpose was to glorify God. Many failed to mention it even as a secondary purpose. Nor did any suggest that the meaning of life was defined by glorifying God.
The most common message was that if you attend at the particular parish, you will find a place where you will fit in, belong and find community. Other churches featured the amenities available: nursery, Sunday School, simultaneous translation, pew hearing aids, coffee hour, accessible parking and elevator, available parish nurse in attendance, convenient location (including, variously, being downtown, close to transit, near a major freeway). Still others stressed style: informal dress, informal worship, traditional worship, fine choir, great preaching, inspiring architecture, family-centered.
Granted, you have to start where people are if you want to reach them. The clear assumption is that where people are is in total absorption of themselves and their needs. Presumably a pitch which said: “Our mission is to glorify God; Come join us” would not thrive. Yet that remains the official chief goal of the churches which historically dominated and shaped our nation. What has gone wrong?
Some would blame it on the waves of invasion from other places. Yet I could find no discernible difference between the various churches of the Reformed tradition and those brought by later immigrants in the pitches made for your attendance, in my admittedly non-scientific survey.
The problem goes back again to that mission statement dilemma. No one pays attention to mission statements. After carefully crafting them, they are put in a quiet place and ignored. The Founding Fathers may not have been as self-absorbed as the Me Generation, but neither did they live their lives focused intensely on glorifying God as their primary end. Half of them were Deists, with their God not available to hear them if they praised him anyway. The mission statements of the American Republic briefly mentioned God to note what he has done for us, not how we can glorify him.
In short, if the chief end of man is to glorify God, it isn’t going to get any help from either our history or our current culture. It is hard to imagine a more counter-cultural idea than a glorification that is not of flag or country nor of individual self-needs. No churches will grow, no politicians will be elected, no businesses will profit by following this mission.
Or are we missing something here? What exactly do you think the chief end of man is? Why do you bother to continue living? Few live in complete aimlessness with no goals at all. Many may live lives where the actual goals are quite different from the stated ones, but they are goals nonetheless. Even suicide is, after all, a very powerful goal. Most Americans in reality live to achieve “a good life,” defined widely as acquiring material benefits, some to achieve a shared greatness for America, variously defined.
In other words, we all have a chief end, achieved directly or sub-consciously, according to plan or to felt needs. For Christians, that goal can mean only one thing. The Westminster Shorter Catechism is on solid Scriptural grounds in making its assertion. We have a prophetic role here, not least among large numbers of Christians who have never thought about this. What happens if the chief goal of worship is not to “reach people,” “bring people to Christ,” “help people find spiritual comfort?” What if we worship chiefly to praise God? Certainly it can’t be done without some education, especially of adults. But should we not at least be trying?
As always, the most important place to start is with the face in the mirror. And when we do that, the concept widens from what happens in church. “Liturgy” comes from Greek words meaning “the work of the people.” On Sundays, that work is to offer praise to God. But it also includes offering him our work of the previous week, in the offertory sacrifice. That does not simply mean tossing a few bucks in the plate. The whole earth is the Lord’s, not just the church grounds. We live in the sacred environment created by God and all that we do is done in that holy space. We either offer it all in praise to God or we profane it.
We are to “pray without ceasing,” as St. Paul puts it (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18). That is achieved, not by the impossible task of continuously mouthing spontaneous or prepared prayers, but by offering all that you do as a prayer, in other words, by offering the work of your “liturgy” in all aspects of your life. Since, in God’s universal creation, nothing is secular, the only two choices are liturgy or blasphemy. This is why we cannot do otherwise than begin where the Catechism does in emphasizing the absolute centrality of glorifying God in every moment of life. The actions of that liturgy may be quite varied. Jesus points out, for example, that feeding the hungry is a liturgical act of praise (Matt. 25:34-40). Sunday’s hymns of praise and the daily prayer office are also quite specifically included. But these are not separate or opposite actions. Rather, they both fit as pieces of your liturgy offered, along with your family life, work life, community efforts, the totality, tied together in the Eucharistic act.
There is a second part to this: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” “Enjoy him forever?” Did dour Presbyterians actually say that? Who would have thought those sober souls would be urging you to enjoy anything or anyone? But the purpose of God for man is based in joy, a message so powerful that even Presbyterians can’t contain themselves.
If, as we are told so clearly in the New Testament and by Jesus in particular, that God is love, we are therefore created by and for that love. It is his joy to have us in his image to share that love. We glorify because we are wrapped in wonderful love and rejoice in the one who will not forsake us, who saves us, who sustains us, who leads us to glory, for all eternity.
Father Alexander Schmemann comments that the Church stopped growing when she lost her joy, many centuries ago. Even a casual observer of Sunday morning church knows the joy has not come back in any great measure. The stereotype, not that far from the reality, is of preaching as “hellfire and brimstone,” negative condemnation of low moral behavior. “Don’t preach at me” in the Christian context should mean: “Don’t tell me the wonderful news of God’s forgiving love and grace, the joy that can be mine for the asking.” In fact, in our language, it means “Don’t lecture me and tell me how I must behave.”
It is not too late. God’s love hasn’t changed, nor the reality of a life, now and eternally, for his beloved people, in exhilarating joy. And church, which is not chiefly an institution or facility, but the very Body of Christ, can indeed grow as a great host of people doing their eucharistic liturgy of praise, losing themselves in wonder, love and praise.
“Long ago when the earth was young
God had creation’s joy all alone
Is there none to share?
I’ll make man to care
I’ll make man the priest of this glorious temple
Love, love alone, was his only aim
Love, love alone, was why he came”